Resetting Your Relationship with Politics This Lent

Millennial writer Mike Jordan Laskey has a new article at NCR. He writes:

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about, listening to, and maybe even cursing at presidential candidates this year. I’ve spent precisely zero time praying for them. I can’t imagine the stress and scrutiny they face every day; they’re certainly in need of prayer. Maybe before I read an article about a particular candidate, I can take 10 seconds to pray for him or her. And perhaps that practice will help me grow more charitable toward all the candidates, including those I really can’t stand. The negativity in politics begins with me….

This refocusing could lead us to some politics-related almsgiving, too. Myopic attention to the national race can distract us from the fact that so much of politics is local. Often, the best efforts to work for the common good take place in individual cities and towns. What community organization near you is practicing politics in the best sense of the word? Maybe it’s a social action group fighting for a living wage for all workers, or a Catholic Charities agency that is welcoming and resettling refugees in your area. Consider choosing one that interests you and contribute some money or time before Easter.

This year’s Super Tuesday is March 1 — about halfway through Lent. It’s a great opportunity to pause and see if election season is helping or hindering our journey toward Easter.

You can read the full article here.


Money & Politics: The System is Broken

We are living in the middle of the Second Gilded Age. The American political system needs major reform to cope with the malign impact of elite economic interests on both electoral outcomes and the policies that our elected officials enact (or fail to enact). We need another Progressive Movement that cuts across partisan lines to push for the structural reform that is essential to re-democratizing our elections so that we can elect better men and women and allow them to more easily do what they think is right when in office. To achieve this, we need an educated public that presses for such reforms. Catholics who believe in Catholic social teaching should be key players in this push to rid our politics of the poison that is plutocracy in order to protect the dignity of all and advance the common good.

This topic—Money & Politics: Is Washington for Sale?—was recently addressed at a conference sponsored by the Franciscan Action Network (FAN) and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPR), where I am a graduate fellow. While some responded with a more definitive and unequivocal “Yes!” to the question at hand than others, there was a strong consensus that economic elites have a disproportionate and unjust impact on American politics. IPR Director Stephen Schneck contrasted the ideals of democracy with “the extraordinarily unfair influence of money” in our political system. He explained that while religions are about the common good, a politics of money is a politics of self-interest. The two cannot be reconciled.

Kathy Saile of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained the right and corresponding duty to participate in society and contribute to the common good. But participation is thwarted when those with money dominate the political system. The rights of the average citizen are violated when their voice is drowned out by the sound of the rich cutting checks for political candidates. Aaron Scherb of Common Cause argued that the ultra-wealthy are trying to turn American politics into a spectator sport. And too often, they are the only ones getting elected to office these days. Aura Kanegis of the American Friends Service Committee explained that people at the grassroots level are getting more cynical about politics. And as Rev. Stacy Martin said, “Even a benign oligarchy is an oligarchy.”

Scherb noted that while quid pro quo corruption is relatively rare, it still has a corrosive impact. It shapes what is on the agenda. It gives those who donate large sums greater access and influence. Scherb cited a Senator who said that he would not call anyone who gave him less than $100. And even college students who aspire to public office begin to take political positions that will help their future electoral prospects—those shared by economic elites—rather than focusing on those that might best serve the common good.

Patrick Carolan of FAN described how nearly every political issue is affected by the money in politics, from immigration reform to climate change to countless others. He put the impact in stark terms, saying that we see more people at soup kitchens and deported back to Central America to die from the violence they attempted to escape because of these policies, which have been shaped by economic elites. Stacy Martin agreed, arguing that people on the margins are the ones who are most harmed by the status quo.

Catholic University professor William Barbieri rightly noted that money has fueled partisanship. It has also fueled ideological polarization. The inability of Congress to seriously address the most pressing issues this country faces is in part because of the distorting impact of money. Politicians can no longer find a middle ground and they are punished for seeking it.

What can be done to reinvigorate democracy in the US? A number of possibilities were mentioned. Scherb spoke about same day voter registration, having Election Day as a national holiday, and making absentee voting easier. Craig Holman of Public Citizen said the most direct way is to pass a constitutional amendment that would no longer allow the Supreme Court to overturn restrictions on campaign donations. Measures could perhaps be enacted to ensure greater transparency.

The success of a democracy is tied to the strength of its middle class. When inequality skyrockets, it is not simply a threat to economic justice, but the stability and efficacy of free and democratic institutions. These institutions must not become outdated—left unable to cope with changing economic circumstances or reinforcing the injustices they are designed to resolve. This is the threat we face today. For those who want progressive policy changes, these structural reforms cannot be overlooked. And for true conservatives—those who wish to preserve that which is good—we have reached a moment where the right kind of reform is essential for preserving our values and the form of government we so rightly hold dear.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

A Nation of Takers? by Nicholas Kristof: “However imperfectly, subsidies for the poor do actually reduce hunger, ease suffering and create opportunity, while subsidies for the rich result in more private jets and yachts. Would we rather subsidize opportunity or yachts? Which kind of subsidies deserve more scrutiny?”

The pope’s message to the president by EJ Dionne: “But the pope’s main job is to pose a radical challenge to our complacency and social indifference. In doing so, he should stir an uneasiness that compels all of us — and that includes Obama — to examine our consciences.”

There are many reasons why Assad is stronger than ever by Michael Young: “A closely-related strategy pursued by the Assad regime has been to allow religious or political extremism to proliferate, in such a way as to portray itself as a foe of the extremists. This it has done in the Syrian conflict, releasing jihadists from prison, putting much less military pressure on them than on the more moderate opposition, and allowing them to control oil-rich areas to finance themselves. The objective has, again, been two-fold: to create dissension within opposition ranks and provoke conflict between opposition groups; and to entice Western public opinion into believing the Al Assads are a barrier against extremism, therefore should not be overthrown.”

Three refreshing gifts of Lent by Robert J. Wicks: “Don’t miss this Lent. Greater inner freedom, a richer sense of compassion, and a deeper sense of our relationship with God are waiting.”

Smuggled, Trafficked, Violated by Nicholas Sawicki: “Whether they’re sold as child sex slaves, harvested for organs, or forced into farm labor, the denial of  the basic human right to freedom for millions is a sad reality that our society has to deal with today.”

Closed City by John Carr: “Washington is not corrupted by secret gifts, but by the legal purchase of access and influence that come with endless fundraising and politics as usual.”

Burma’s Muslims Are Facing Incredibly Harsh Curbs on Marriage, Childbirth and Religion by Time: “Proposed regulations will restrict religious conversions, make it illegal for Buddhist women to marry Muslim men, place limits on the number of children Muslims can have and outlaw polygamy, which is permitted in Islam. More than 1.3 million signatures have reportedly been gathered in support of this plan, which is spearheaded by a group of extremist Buddhist monks and their lay supporters.”

Ukrainian Catholics flee Crimea to escape threats of arrest by CNS: “Members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church are fleeing Crimea to escape threats of arrest and property seizures, a priest told Catholic News Service just four days after Russia finalized the region’s annexation.”

Political skills for divine purposes by Michael Gerson: “Francis has a feel for powerful symbols of simplicity, humility and compassion, such as carrying his own suitcase, washing the feet of Muslim prisoners, inviting the homeless to his birthday party, touching the disfigured. In this case, old Coke is pretty old — the example of a wandering preacher who touched lepers and consorted with a variety of sinners and outcasts. As in that ancient example, Francis has combined traditional moral teachings with a scandalous belief that people are ultimately more important than rules.”

Under a Barrel by Lama Fakih: “These unguided, high-explosive bombs — which are cheaply produced locally and filled with explosives, scrap metal, nails, or other material to enhance fragmentation — are pushed out of helicopters, dropped on densely populated areas by the Syrian army. Used in this way, the bombs are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants, making the attacks unlawful under international humanitarian law.”

The Very Real Prospect of Genocide in Burma by Romeo Dallaire: “The international community must take early preventive action now in order to reverse Burma’s current trend towards catastrophe and possibly genocide.”

Shadowed by Tragedy by Kerry Weber: “Rwanda is a country that longs to be known for something other than the genocide, and over the past 20 years, the nation’s government has worked hard to replace that reputation with a more positive one. In many ways, it has succeeded. Rwanda has made dramatic advances and now ranks among the cleanest, safest and least corrupt countries in Africa. Yet its deepest wound is one that cannot be healed by superficial changes.”

Why it’s OK to be a Liberal Catholic or Conservative Catholic

It is not unusual to hear Catholic political commentators say that the Church is above politics, that its teachings transcend the labels and descriptions that define our politics.  In articles, commentaries and discussions, a person will inevitably encounter this caveat. Whether on torture, the HHS mandate or immigration, these figures contend they are merely applying the timeless and apolitical teachings of the Church to the social and political matters that the Church and her members must engage.

This is an unhelpful and trivial observation. While it is indisputable that the Church and Her teachings exist outside of, and independent from, our current political and social circumstances, we, as persons do not. The positions that we take, even those that are rooted in Church teachings, are embedded in our unique circumstances. We are political beings. These are political issues and positions that we are taking.   Even if the Church transcends politics, we necessarily must operate within a concrete historical context.

If we as Catholics are to accept that, then we should recognize that most articulations of the Church’s teachings can be categorized using the language found in contemporary American political debates.  The application of Church teaching cannot entirely transcend the concrete and historical, and it is problematic to behave as though it does.

Catholics of many viewpoints and in various positions within the Church (lay, religious or clerical) take positions on topical debates that cannot be separated or distinguished from the political context in which these debates occur. The political circumstances frame and guide their application of Church teaching. For a politically engaged Catholic to embrace the label of “liberal” or “conservative” is to not to turn away from Church teaching, but to be realistic and practical.

The political landscape in which American Catholics operate needs to be defined in a way that is both accurate and comprehensible.  Catholics should not fear or denounce this supposed “politicization” of the faith. The faith is not somehow being corrupted by its relegation to the mundane, messy world of contemporary politics. We lack the power that God has as an omniscient being to know all truth in its complete and unadulterated form.   We are left to find our way in the world by examining our surroundings and learning from others, both Catholic and non-Catholic.  This inevitably shapes our views, including our political perspectives.

The reality is that the positions we take are recognizable by other people in this country and can be easily classified within the discursive space which fills our political world. It is clear that some Catholics are textbook liberals, while others are typical conservatives.  For those who break from these paradigms—the Catholic Bishops for instance—we can still define certain positions they take as “liberal” while others can accurately be described as “conservative.”

To employ the vocabulary used in contemporary American politics and to link these descriptions to the positions we take in applying Church teachings is a way to help us understand our world and operate in it. So don’t feel embarrassed embracing the “conservative,” “liberal,” or other adjective you attach to your Catholicism. Let’s not mistake the Church’s transcendence for our own.

The Real Romney

I have no idea what Mitt Romney really believes.  When it comes to public policy, he is one of the least principled men to ever run for the presidency in a general election.  Given the history of politics in our country, that’s quite an achievement.

Is he the pro-choice, pragmatic, technocratic moderate from Massachusetts or is he the government-hating, anti-abortion severe conservative of this campaign?  No one knows.  Maybe it’s neither.  His only true guiding principle appears to be his ambition.

A new video has come out where Romney is seen saying the following:

“…there are 47 percent who are with him (President Obama), who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”

If he believes this repulsive nonsense, that working-class Americans who are trying to survive living paycheck to paycheck in the awful economy created by the Great Recession and the elderly who have worked and done their part for decades are nothing but leeches living off the strong supermen of some delusional Ayn Rand-inspired fantasy, he should not be allowed near the White House, even as a guest.  If he does not believe it, he is such a cynical politician that his election to the presidency would be a national disgrace.

People working low-wage jobs, the currently unemployed, the elderly, and others (the vast majority of his 47%) think they deserve healthcare?  They think they are entitled to food?  That’s because they are.  Access to healthcare is a fundamental right.  Having enough food to survive is a fundamental right.  Anyone who argues otherwise has values that stand in stark contrast to the Catholic worldview.  It is beyond me how anyone who hopes to follow the way of Christ can hold such appalling views of the poor and spend their life trying to make the rich richer at the cost of the common good.  Shredding the social safety net to ensure that the rich will have increased wealth and more luxuries, while disparaging regular folks who have worked hard and played by the rules their whole lives, can only seem logical to someone whose life is entirely divorced from the life of the average American.

The idea that 47% of Americans lack personal responsibility because they do not pay federal income taxes (only state taxes, local taxes, payroll taxes, etc., which can often add up to a higher percentage than Romney’s own total tax contribution) is the type of condescending garbage one might expect from someone with great advantages who lacks the basic human decency and humility to acknowledge the many contributions others have made toward his own success.  It is what one might expect from the type of person who has the audacity to rip an opponent’s comment out of context and turn it into a central theme of his campaign, encouraging the smug, egotistical mentality of “I built that!”

No man is an island.  Nothing that you or I or anyone accomplishes is ever built alone.  First of all, where is God in this Randian worldview?  Exactly where Rand wanted God, nowhere to be seen.  Second, no one person built all the roads that allow a business to be successful.  Few people are entirely self-educated.  No one has established the rule of law on their own.  No one individual can do what millions of Americans troops have done for the sake of security, freedom, and justice.  From a purely individualistic, self-interested point of view, community matters.  It is essential for individual success.

From a Christian point of view, it is far more than this.  We are brothers and sisters, who care deeply about one another.  By coming together in community, we are responding to our social nature and spiritual desire for communion.  We do not have contempt for those less fortunate.  We feel compassion and a sense of duty.  We are humbled by our success and recognize the awesome responsibilities that come with the gifts we have been given.

I do not doubt Romney’s authentic belief in God and Jesus Christ.  I just wish he would act on these beliefs and explicitly reject the morality of greed and selfishness.  Of course that would mean turning his back on his most important donors and supporters.  Given his past political courage, I am not expecting any changes.

The Architecture of the City of God

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to meet an assortment of people who are as diverse as they are impressive.  On any given day, I get to have conversations with immigrant janitors from Latin America and Nobel Prize winning WASPs, with football players and chess champions.  I try to engage each of them, and some of the stories I’ve heard and the things I’ve learned—even in conversations that rarely last more than a few minutes—have blown me away.

Of the scores of impressive and interesting people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, Chicago Tribune architecture critic and Niemen Fellow Blair Kamin is but one.  His most recent book is a collection of his columns on architecture in the 21st century and would seem an odd place to find inspiration and insight for a blog post that will wax political, but there I found it.  In a column on the tension that sometimes exists between preserving historic buildings and retrofitting them so that they are more eco-friendly, he writes:

The shift in the LEED standards suggests that the key to resolving the conflict between preservation and conservation is not technical but cultural.  It’s about how we live and how we ought to navigate between perilous extremes: not with overzealous ideology but with enlightened pragmatism that reshapes and reinvigorates old ideals in response to new realities.  By virtue of their common heritage and their common values, preservation and conservation can be friends, not foes.  But like good friends or rival siblings, they may need, occasionally, to agree to disagree.

Imagine for a moment that he were to replace “preservation and conservation” with “liberals and conservatives” or “Republicans and Democrats.”  Would that not be entirely clear and, more to the point, excellent advice?  Why can we not pick from the finest options each camp has to offer, and combine them to fashion the best possible individual solution to each problem as it arises?  Blair shows that it can work in architecture, and I have no doubt that it could work in Congress if only the political will was there to do so.

More recently, David Brooks’ column  highlights what, aside from a near total lack of substance, I believe to be the biggest and most disappointing aspect of the 2012 presidential campaign.

[Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul] Ryan’s fantasy happens to be the No. 1 political fantasy in America today, which has inebriated both parties. It is the fantasy that the other party will not exist. It is the fantasy that you are about to win a 1932-style victory that will render your opponents powerless.

Every single speech in this election campaign is based on this fantasy. There hasn’t been a speech this year that grapples with the real world — that we live in a highly polarized, evenly divided nation and the next president is going to have to try to pass laws in that context.

It’s obvious why candidates talk about the glorious programs they’ll create if elected. It fires up crowds and defines values. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s almost entirely make-believe.

These words took on extra meaning today when I watched a new ad for Joe Donnelly, the pro-life Democratic nominee for Senate in Indiana.  [Disclosure: I donated money to Donnelly, but a few years ago did some non-political work for Republican nominee Richard Mourdock, who was the client of a client.]    My purpose here isn’t to pick on or promote any candidate, especially as I live half a continent away from Indiana, but simply to highlight some disturbing trends.

I think it’s telling that Mourdock used the word “inflict” in his wildly, sadly distorted definition of “bipartisanship.”  As Christians, to say nothing of participants in what was once, and still could be, a functional, healthy democracy, we should never want to inflict anything on anyone else.  Sure, as a zoon politikon I enjoy a good political debate as much as the next guy, and I always enjoy being able to convince someone else that the merits of my argument are stronger than theirs, but I’m also more than willing to be convinced that their arguments are stronger than mine.

Almost more troubling than Mourdock’s disturbing word choice is his rigid partisanship.  I happen to be a registered Democrat, but there are some aspects of my party’s platform with which I profoundly disagree.  I’m with them most of the time, but am, as our bishops have counseled us, “guided more by [my] moral convictions than by [my] attachment to a political party or interest group.”  Echoing James Madison’s warning against factions in Federalist 10, the bishops have lamented that:

Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.

The bishops go on to say that “in today’s political environment… Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and too few candidates fully share the Church’s comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death.”  As the bishops have rightly recognized, neither party gets it right all of the time.  So when a serious contender for the world’s greatest deliberative body believes that deliberation should consist of one half of the chamber simply bowing down to the other half, we have a serious problem.  Should he be elected, I fear Mourdock will find only too many like-minded Senators there waiting to greet him.

As with architecture, what we need in the halls of power today is not overzealous ideology but enlightened pragmatism.  We need more who recognize that there is far more which unites us than divides us, that we need to work together in order to move ahead, and that by virtue of their common heritage and their common values, Republicans and Democrats can be friends, not foes.

The issues that face us today are serious, perilous even.  The divisions between our political parties, our red states and our blue states, and ourselves, need not be.  If I have any prayer for our country, it is that we get beyond these divisions.  I just hope I can address it to St. Thomas More and not St. Jude.